Tacoma Nature Center nurtures future environmental stewards

Tacoma Nature Center

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Drivers passing through the intersection of busy south 19th and Tyler streets near Cheney Stadium can be forgiven if they overlook Tacoma Nature Center on the southeast corner.

In contrast to Heidelberg-Davis Park, on the other side of the street, or the busy shopping center kitty corner across from it, the green building nestled in the woods wasn’t designed to attract crowds.

Nevertheless, since the interpretive center’s completion in 1991, its audience, including park users, has grown to an estimated 35,000 people annually.

From the outset, the center has promoted environmental education and conservation, combined with outdoor recreation. As part of a longstanding partnership with Tahoma Audubon Society, whose members were instrumental to its establishment, the center focuses on families and children. (Audubon, in contrast, tailors most programs to adults.)

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In a region already imbued with an environmental ethic, Tacoma Nature Center strikes its own path. “We’re not trying to duplicate what’s already out there,” said Michele Cardinaux, who has been the center’s supervisor since 2005.

Tacoma Nature Center’s location, on the edge of the 71-acre Snake Lake nature preserve, dictates much of its focus: urban wildlife, wetlands and watersheds. The park bills itself as an urban oasis.  Its trails are popular with walkers and runners, as well as parents and grandparents towing young children. In 2010, the center opened Discovery Pond, a nature-based play area.

“We wanted to provide a bridge from a traditional playground to the preserve, so people would become more comfortable with nature,” Cardinaux said. “The play structures almost mimic what’s in the park. The water feature, for example.”

From the beginning, the center’s naturalists, or environmental educators, have hosted school groups and run vacation-time camps for youngsters. In 2009, the center opened its nature-based preschool, now so popular that enrollment closes months in advance. There are science classes geared to home schoolers, special programs for Girl Scouts, and the newest innovation: Agents of Discovery.

Agents of Discovery is a free, downloadable, family-oriented game for smart phones that follows players around Snake Lake as they solve mysteries of the habitat. The game was introduced in February with plans to introduce new missions several times a year, coinciding primarily with seasonal changes in nature.

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The center also is home base for Metro Parks’ Outdoor Adventures program, which takes adults and kids out of town for hiking, kayaking, and winter snowshoeing and snow play. In summer, Outdoor Adventures camps attract teens and pre-teens interested in kayaking, canoeing, fishing, hiking and backpacking.

Several years ago, Metro Parks leaders asked Tacoma Nature Center to expand its reach. “We’re charged to bring programs to people in as many parks as we can,” Cardinaux said. Naturalists now guide 28 free Family Nature Walks annually throughout Tacoma. They also host low-tide Tiptoe Through the Tidepools explorations at Titlow Park, camp fire programs at Swan Creek Park and Pier Peer night-time adventures at the Point Defiance Marina and the Foss Waterway Seaport.

But there’s a limit to what can be done with existing staff, Cardinaux said. That’s one reason why the center introduced Agents of Discovery. If this pilot project proves popular and worthwhile at Snake Lake, similar self-guided, exploratory games may be introduced in other Metro Parks natural areas, Cardinaux said.

Learn more about Tacoma Nature Center.